Creating Inclusive Spaces: Dyslexia and Judging

Written by Irene Quintavalle

Written by Irene Quintavalle

For most folks, learning to read and write happen so early in life–and so easily–that it can be hard to understand those difficulties a person with dyslexia faces every day. In this article, we’ll explore some of those challenges and how you as a judge might be able to deal with them.

A Brief Intro about Dyslexia

For many kids living with dyslexia, the challenges they face before diagnosis are vast and are not only related to reading and writing. The stigmas associated with dyslexia can be particularly damaging for kids who are seen as lazy but smart; those typical kids who are brilliant, but who don’t study. As a result of this stereotype, undiagnosed dyslexics not only struggle with classroom tasks, but also must battle against the idea that their spelling mistakes and slow reading capacity are caused by a lack of concentration or of time spent doing homework.

These kids are not lazy. Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder and it is caused by atypical functioning of the brain’s neuronal network: a dyslexic brain works in a different way — not better, not worse, just different.

In general, dyslexia creates some tangible consequences for folks with the learning disorder, especially related to reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic.

For instance, because decoding written texts is so challenging and reading and writing require heavier mental effort, dyslexics tire sooner than non-dyslexics. Moreover, this fatigue can influence the overall quality and quantity of their work.

Some people with dyslexia have problems reading aloud because they misspell or fragment words. Sometimes words are even substituted. This phenomenon is called anticipation: the dyslexic mind is sometimes so exhausted by reading that it prefers to choose a random word based on context, rather than to decode a word it doesn’t recognize. Similar problems can arise with writing or speech, simple math, memorization, or even spatial orientation. Dyslexics tend to confuse right and left and invert things in lists.

When smart kids realize that they are incapable of doing such easy tasks, no matter how hard they try or study, they can suffer from low self-esteem, stress, and frustration because they are well aware of their challenges, but are unable to overcome them. As dyslexics grow up, those negative feelings persist and embarrassment can lead them to hide or lie about their dyslexia.

Dyslexia and Magic

At this point, you’re probably wondering “what’s this got to do with Magic?”

Well, it is estimated that 3–7% of the population worldwide suffer from dyslexia, however, up to 20% may have some degree of symptoms. That means there is more than likely a dyslexic kid in every class of every school–a lot of them undiagnosed. It is not so absurd then to think that the same is likely true in Magic tournaments. Remember, dyslexics are smart kids and Magic attracts smart people.

Challenges for Dyslexics in Magic


I know for sure there is a dyslexic person in every event I’m in. As a dyslexic player and judge, I have encountered a lot of problems, starting as early as the judge exam. The exam was a true nightmare! The card formatting on that test (only text in a box, no spatial separation between AP’s and NAP’s cards and permanents, no tokens, etc.) presents a real hurdle for dyslexics. After all, they need more time to decode a text and, especially when dealing with complicated Magic cards, a visual support would be extremely useful.

The answer format was also challenging for me. Often, the various answers have only subtle differences in their written text. I had to erase identical words from various answers in order to properly assess the differences. Combined with the countdown timer, the test experience was incredibly stressful.

These conditions made practice exams nearly impossible. I rarely finished more than half the questions. Einstein once said not to judge the intelligence of a fish by its ability to climb a tree. That was me while taking the test: a fish who was desperately trying to climb a tree.

When mentoring or assisting dyslexic judges and candidates, the best encouragement is to tell the judge to do their best, and to make sure they have the conditions to try their best. Printing tests out for dyslexic judge candidates can help them read carefully and at their own pace. Likewise, the new exams on Judge Apps, with visual cards, the ability to hide incorrect answers, and a longer time limit are really a great improvement over past practice tests.

Do not, however, understate the challenge in front of them. I was once told about the test, “Don’t be afraid; you are prepared and it’s easy!” Remember, uncertainty and difficulty with “easy” tasks leads directly to confidence issues and frustration for dyslexics. This is why it is important for non-dyslexics to understand the complexity of this learning disorder.

Deck Checks

Deck checks present another big obstacle to me and judges like me. Reading Magic player handwriting can be a challenge for anyone, but for dyslexics especially, decoding such variable characters is really hard. Lists in general are difficult and we don’t have precise spatial sense related to object orientation. It’s easy to accidentally shift columns or rows when trying to read and count a deck.

I am slower in deck checks than other judges and I get tired really quickly, and the more tired I am, the slower I become. Still, I have worked hard to develop a personal deck check strategy that works for me because it’s important that a judge be able to do this task.

If you are team leading, do not try to impose a new or ‘revolutionary’ checking technique. Good team leadership means giving us a chance to accept advice, or even to turn down a task request, so ultimately, asking your team what jobs they feel most comfortable with or if there are any accommodations necessary will go a long way. I also recommend watching an entire check before offering any advice or new tips. Personally, I find it easiest to complete deck checks in early rounds, when my mind is freshest and I always appreciate the opportunity to try deck checks at an event.

That said, GP Main Event deck checks might be too challenging and time sensitive for me or judges like me. So I am suggesting that in a side event of a GP, where there are a lot of skilled and experienced judges, it would be very useful if someone gave us an opportunity to test our skills and work on this challenge. It could be a huge boost for our ability and self-esteem!

A few months ago, a judge let me help in a PPTQ and my first deck check was horrible. I felt terrible for the time that was passing and I was so slow. The more I felt the pressure, the worse my performance became. This judge decided to sacrifice part of his time to teach me, and he helped me a lot. He was neither angry nor irritated, even if that deck check took more than twenty minutes. I was shaking, I was ashamed because I was fully aware of what was going on: the players were waiting at the table and the tournament was going to be delayed. Still, this judge encouraged me and trusted me with another deck check. Next time, I was under ten minutes. He chose to sacrifice part of that tournament to help me improve and proved to me that I could do a tournament deck check just like other judges! Judges with dyslexia want to be capable in all tasks, like anybody else. It can be challenging for judges to teach dyslexics, I know, because we might slow down the tournament, and everyone enjoys a tournament that is as quick and as smooth as possible, but being kind, and creating spaces for us help out and improve is so valuable.

One last note: our learning disorder is ours to disclose. It is always great when a team leader gives me a chance to ask for accommodations or to explain how I can succeed, but once a judge told players in our tournament “Sorry, the deck check took longer because she is dyslexic.” That was horrible. I felt guilty and ashamed.

Still, if you are a dyslexic judge, don’t be afraid and speak up! By being open with the team lead, we can help our team succeed. Tell your team leader what you need to be successful, and I am sure you will find amazing people that will put in a lot of effort to meet your needs. Share your difficulties and your opinions as well: only personal improvement for both parties can arise from this exchange. I think that every person is different and can contribute in a special way to a team. As I said, the dyslexic brain works differently, not better or worse, so sometimes we see solutions where others don’t!

On the Floor

Better to avoid rules or policy questions asked out of the blue, just for fun, when I am busy doing some other tasks. It takes me a lot of effort to shift focus and concentrate on a new situation. It is difficult to remember several pieces of information about cards that are not in front of me, so if I am unable to answer a question on the spot, I end up stressed and frustrated.

As a player, I have encountered a different set of problems, which has led me to let my Head Judge know of my disorder when playing in tournaments. Reading pairings, for example, can be very tricky. I sat at the wrong table once because I misread the central number of my table. My opponent was nice: he expected to play against a man and kindly ask my name to confirm. I called a judge who understood the situation and escorted me to the right table before the countdown of round time started.

After that, I always double check my table, which takes me longer to be sure. Once, a judge wasn’t sympathetic when I asked to check the pairings again after the mob of players had left. He warned me to be quick or I would be issued a tardiness penalty no matter what. So, if you are a judge and you acknowledge the presence of a dyslexic player, you could mark or underline their name and table number, and always remember to not hang pairings too high or in a place where players can’t get close enough: the possibility of following your name with a finger can really help to find the right table.

Limited Deck Lists

Writing or verifying a deck list in limited is a problem, too. In Italy checklists have their card names translated and arranged in alphabetical order. But the collector number is present, too, and is printed before the card name. The numbers are thus in a random order because the cards are listed in the English alphabetical order. Now think about everything I just said: a random number, in front of a tiny name, in a big list, with a countdown timer. What could possibly go wrong?

I discussed with other judges about which kind of list would be the best choice for a dyslexic, and whether we could use or create different kinds of lists, but because limited tournaments require players to pass, check, and verify each others’ lists, it isn’t really possible to create a different list.

To me, the best solution is to use collector numbers: my ideal list is one with no words and just numbers. I can sort cards much easier based on number and am not as confused. But I don’t have dyscalculia, where others do. The only suggestion I can make for judges comes from kindness: if you see someone struggling, please go to help them! I understand that when the problem is recognizable by sight it is easier to reach the one who needs help. A few months ago I saw a picture of a judge, during a GP, who was helping a dyslexic boy with his list. I was moved because I know exactly how terrible that situation could be, and I was so glad he was getting the help he needed. Thanks to that judge’s simple, kind action a player’s day was saved!

Conclusion: Judge with Empathy and Compassion

I have always felt that dyslexia is often seen as a common issue, a “no big deal,” that dyslexics know how to cope with, so they don’t need help to do so. I hope now that you are aware of the pressure and difficulties a dyslexic can have in Magic tournament spaces, and that this article will help you to be a more thoughtful and empathetic judge. I am confident that by applying some of these tips and paying closer attention to your tournaments, you will make Magic a more welcoming and inclusive space for all!

Want to know more?

What is Dyslexia?

International Dyslexia Association
Ted-Ed “What is Dyslexia” – Kelli Sandman-Hurley

Dyslexia Simulators:

Hosted on Github
Youtube Video

A dyslexia-specific font